Short Reviews – The Last Monster, Gardner F. Fox

The Last Monster by Gardner F. Fox appeared in the Fall 1945 issue of Planet Stories.

So far, Gardner F. Fox’s The Last Monster has been one of my favorite stories in this issue.  I will now put him alongside Misha Burnett in the very short list of authors who write Lovecraftian monster stories I don’t hate.

Stories from monster/alien perspectives are so old-hat that they’re often seen on lists of markets’ story ideas that they won’t accept because they’ve seen it all before.  But this was 1945, the War was not yet won, and Fox sold Planet Stories a piece about the last member of a great ancient race of tentacle monsters from beyond the stars.

Irgi is the last of his kind and acts as the custodian of his people’s world and heritage.  Alas, he discovered the secret of immortality too late to save his people, but he can at least keep their treasures safe and clean.  But he is so lonely!  When he wishes upon a star that he were not so lonely, what should appear but a spaceship of humans on an urgent mission…

Everyone is dying of space cancer and Brave But Tumorous Space Captain and his crew of Nice Guy with Dying Wife, Convict Miner and Thick Accent Gutter Trash are the only ones desperate enough to go off in search of the Radium deposits necessary to create cancer medicine, and find themselves on Irgi’s world.

Irgi is delighted to have company while the humans are terrified by a giant tentacle monster.   Irgi subdues the crews, after he realizes they can’t understand his vocal frequency, so he can cure their cancer and prove his friendship, but when Gutter Trash escapes, messes with immortality/cure-all machine and gets obliterated, the other humans begin to panic as they think they’re being taken to their doom.  Irgi feels awful; the only way he can prove his intentions is by curing the humans.  He recalibrates the machine from his own frequency to that of the humans and uses it to cure the crew.  Then he loads everything up on their ship and sends them off with a wave.  He knows he can’t go to earth, because humans would be scared of him, but he can now die, his source of immortality gone, in the knowledge he will be remembered as a hero, just like George Washington, and maybe have statues built in his honor.

The humans leave the doomed Irgi, wondering what the hell that strange awful monster was but glad that they would all soon be rich and famous for finding the cure for space cancer.

Damn.

I’m beginning to think that radiation cancer is kind of a thing with Fox, as it’s the second story of his I’ve read out of three in which radiation disease is a key plot point.  In Fox’s sci-fi future, anyone who travels in space is pretty much doomed because deadly space rays lead to space cancer.  It’s certainly an aspect of sci-fi space-travel adventure that you don’t see being addressed by many of his contemporaries, even when the power of atomic radiation is acknowledged.  It’s also far less preposterous than the radiation emitting monolith in Fox’s Arsenal of Miracles that is the cause for the eventual death of all living things.  The human characters are pretty generic tropes, but they’re not the worst and they get the job done. Irgi is not particularly nuanced, but one certainly has to feel for him, and this story does tug at the heart-strings.  And it DOES make you think what it must have been like for the last of those Great Races of Lovecraft as their mighty civilizations were in their twilight years; would they be remembered as great scientists and builders or as monsters?

Short Reviews – Vassals of the Lode-Star, Gardner F. Fox

Vassals of the Lode-Star by Gardner F. Fox appeared in the Summer 1947 issue of Planet Stories.

Thor Masterson, Lumberjack, throws the viking axe he found into the back of the evil android priest of Aava who is man-handling the blonde lady he loves.  This depiction is pretty accurate.

Thor Masterson, Lumberjack, throws the viking axe he found into the back of the evil android priest of Aava to save a blonde lady. This depiction is pretty accurate.

Vassals of the Lode-Star is an undeniable mess.  Both the narrative style and writing are along the lines of Axe Cop, resulting in a work that seems both incredibly childish and grippingly awesome.  Characterizations were weak and the science in this sci-fi seemed pulled from a half-remembered article from Scientific American, but for some reason I could not put this down and found it more entertaining than most of what I’d read in the 1970s F&SF.

Thor Masterson is a prince among men: he is lumberjack, a former college football player, and can run like an Indian, all of which conveniently make him the most prepared of prepared dudes for his epic adventure.  Like Frank Baum’s Dorothy, Thor Masterson and his house are ripped from earth and dropped in a strange land.  For some reason, a buxom blonde priestess and an angry dwarf show up in his house.  He beats the dwarf, who becomes his loyal friend and ally, and teaches the blonde how to speak English.  Instead of being met by friendly members of the Lollipop Guild, Thor and his companions are attacked by evil androids.  Thank god Thor is a lumberjack who played football, because he easily wrecks their shit.

Thor meets a thing called the Discoverer who explains a bunch of stuff, teaches him the mysteries of astral projection, and tells him about Aava, the bad guy.  There’s something about a flipped pocket world (think Dark World from Link to the Past), Thor meets a band of weird aliens plus a British guy, who happens to be an archer and says “By Jove” a lot, they fight a lot of androids, rescue the women, fight more androids, and almost all get killed by androids, until finally Thor stops the evil Aava by covering him with sand because he is a silicon-based life-form.

There is more weird random stuff in this than I can even go into.  Viking ships, ape men, evil androids reminiscent of those from Demon with the Glass Hand, astral time travel, illusory cities with hot red-heads, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Axe Cop has the excuse that it was written by a six-year-old; somehow Gardner F. Fox managed to do this on purpose in a serious outing as a writer.  This is not at all characteristic of the style from The Arsenal of Miracles, so, bad science aside, his writing gets substantially better.  But even this garbled primitive style manages to be so fascinating!  Vassals is almost certainly the opposite of message fiction, unless the message is that it is important to be a lumberjack so you can fight androids with the Viking axe you might eventually find (and a club is like an axe with different balance!).   Vassals of the Lode-star feels like story-telling in its most primeval form; it’s like reading the translation of a creation story written by a culture that has only recently discovered literacy but somehow also had popular science magazines.

Ace Doubles: John Brunner & Gardner F. Fox and Dean Cain & Milo Yiannopoulos

There was no 120' long giant cobra in Brunner's book, but there was a colossal doom monolith on a dead world orbiting a red giant in Fox's.

There was no 120′ long giant cobra in Brunner’s book, but there was a colossal doom monolith on a dead world orbiting a red giant in Fox’s.

John Brunner’s Endless Shadow is something of a modernist clusterfuck (the excerpted quote from Joyce should be a heads-up) and rather hard to get into, but damn if it wasn’t a fascinating slice of galactic soap opera. The concept is that humans had colonized dozens of worlds, were separated through a dark age, and have since been re-unified through a dimensional bridge system. While various human worlds contribute their culture to the mass of humanity’s empire, Earth’s main responsibility is maintaining the bridge.

The shift in focus from one group of characters to another (three groups) made it somewhat challenging to sort out who was who, especially considering that it’s not even 100 pages. It read like a pilot episode for something like a much more bizarre Deep Space 9 or Babylon 5. Despite being disjointed, a lot of interesting individuals either did interesting things or had interesting things happen to them.  If this were a weekly 90s space soap, I would’ve watched it.

My biggest issue with Endless Shadow was not the lack of a protagonist, disjointed storytelling, or strange philosophical puzzles, but the heaps of praise, almost to the point of deification, for programmers. In Endless Shadow, computer programmers are viewed as superhuman, beautiful women want to throw themselves at them, but alas, the program is more important, and they flawlessly write millions words of code! Really? I work in software, and you’re lucky if programmers can be arsed to do their own unit testing half the time, much less write a million words (not lines, mind you!) of code without a single mistake. But if Brunner wants programmers to be newtype supermen, so be it; he makes up for them with snake-handlers and pain cultists.

Now, I’m a huge Ursula K. LeGuin fan; she was one of my first fantasy loves and I really liked her sci-fi when I finally went back and read it. But the more of her contemporaries I read, the more I find myself thinking that her Hainish stories pale in comparison to the other anthropological sci-fi (anthro-punk?) I’ve been reading.

Gardner F. Fox’s The Arsenal of Miracles was much more of a straight-forward space opera. Where it was an interplanetary space adventure, Arsenal was awesome; a former Earth Empire Admiral wanders the galaxy, known as “the Lucky”, though he makes his own luck, is reunited with the beautiful alien queen whose people he threw his career away trying to find a new homeworld: together, they search the ruined worlds of a lost alien master race to recover the technology that will help her people earn their place in the Empire while on the run from a rogue admiral and treacherous prince. Where it delved into actual science of Radiation, it got pretty silly… But it’s so easy to forgive silly bad science when you have a space-man fighting a giant space panther armed with nothing but a table leg followed by a sword-fight as the alien queen’s champion against her evil brother.

If Leigh Brackett had written Arsenal, Bran the Lucky would’ve smoked cigarettes and called the alien queen Baby, but I can’t really think of any other ways to improve on this one. Fox has been added to my watch list.

Lastly: hey, it’s Dean Cain and Milo!

I’d been meaning to write something about Lois & Clark for some time, since I recently rewatched it, but it basically boiled down to three points:
1. Lois & Clark is best Superman.
2. Special effects aside, Lois & Clark aged really well.
3. Out of half a dozen Superman movies, why were none as good as the pilot of Lois & Clark?

Update: While the Superman of my childhood has spoken up on behalf of gamers and ethics in journalism, Superman in the comics is apparently busy punching cops.

“New 52 am best Superman!”